A rejuvenated Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park reflects El Paso’s continued resurgence.
Client Franklin Mountain Investments
Design Architect and Architect of Record Cooper Carry
Local Consulting Architect and Historic Restoration Advisor In*Situ Architecture
Interior Design The Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry, Forrest Perkins
Contractor Jordan Foster Construction
Historic Tax Credit Consulting MacRostie Historic Advisors
Structural Engineer Uzun + Case
MEP Engineer Jordan & Skala Engineers
The newly renovated Plaza Hotel opened its doors in the summer of 2020, following the closure of the land border between the United States and Mexico and during a time when most Americans were not traveling due to the pandemic. Located on El Paso’s Pioneer Plaza, the hotel was built during a similar period of economic decline. Construction began in 1929, just 19 days before the stock market crash, but the work continued, with the hotel opening in November 1930. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Plaza Hotel emerged triumphant from both periods of economic upheaval as the pièce de résistance defining El Paso’s skyline and a symbol of a city’s downtown renaissance.
Pioneer Plaza is the historic site of the area’s first ranch settlement, which was established by a wealthy merchant, farmer, and rancher named Don Juan María Ponce de León. Decades later, Anson Mills, a military officer, surveyor, and entrepreneur from Indiana, was instrumental in creating the first town plan and naming the new settlement “El Paso.” The first building to occupy the plaza was Hotel Sheldon, which served as the center of civic and social life in El Paso until it was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1929. With close ties to El Paso, the hotelier Conrad Hilton became intrigued by the idea of building a new hotel in its place that would “embrace the best of the town’s Spanish and western legacy.” He soon announced plans to build the grandest high-rise hotel in his expanding Texas-based chain. Prolific El Paso architecture firm Trost & Trost designed Hilton’s hotel, and contractor Robert E. McKee completed the project at record pace. The Trost brothers, leaders in the use of reinforced concrete technology in the desert Southwest, contributed numerous buildings to downtown El Paso; many of those, including the Plaza Hotel, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Plaza is a skyscraper that combines a 17-story reinforced concrete tower with an adjacent three-story steel trapezoidal base. Fluted cast stone cladding runs the full height of the clean, rectilinear brick tower, while the facade of the base is decorated with a mix of cast stone and terracotta. Meso-American and Masonic motifs are rendered in a modern Art Deco idiom that came to be known as “Pueblo Deco.” Topping the building is a central mass, capped by a green pyramidal roof, that adds height and mechanical space to the tower. Despite many financial hardships, Hilton’s hotel was operational until the 1960s, after which it changed ownership several times and suffered several regrettable renovations that eliminated most of the original interiors.
The Plaza sat unoccupied beginning in 1991. Franklin Mountain Investments (FMI) purchased the property in 2008 and later hired El Paso-based In*Situ Architecture to determine the best reuse for the historic structure. In*Situ performed numerous planning studies and undertook historic research and documentation to piece together the historical context of the hotel. One significant discovery was that the success of the Plaza Hotel helped save Hilton from financial ruin during the Depression.
In*Situ’s principal architect, William Helm, AIA, noted: “The lines that form Pioneer Plaza and the hotel’s footprint are traces of the city’s first settlement at Ponce’s rancho. Sitting squarely at El Paso’s founding point, the hotel and its predecessor were historically the center of society and commerce — so it was imperative that our design team honor this legacy with a rehabilitation that reestablished the hotel as the city’s living room for another generation of El Pasoans.”
Following a national search for a hospitality specialist, FMI engaged the multidisciplinary firm Cooper Carry to lead the design team and its charge to create a boutique destination experience for the city. With In*Situ as their local partner, Cooper Carry worked closely with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Texas State Historic Preservation Office to preserve as many elements of the original architecture as possible.
The hotel’s original double-height vaulted lobby was reinstated, undoing an earlier, ill-conceived renovation. The Plaza’s Ámbar Restaurante is located at the center of this grand entrance experience, with the bar as its focal point. The atrium interior combines artfully restored faux vigas featuring colorful Native American motifs; reconstructed stained glass; and a new 40-ft-high amber-colored glass and polished stainless steel “vitrine” displaying a new staircase and showcasing one of the state’s largest tequila collections. Original giant parchment lanterns, restored and retrofitted to today’s standards, hang from the cathedral-like space. The dining area is warm and convivial: Its furnishings blend comfort and luxury with rough-hewn Texas finishes such as the building’s original clay tile, faux wood beams, and hand-tooled leather column wraps made by Mexican artisans. On the exterior, new copper-and-glass canopies were added at street level to mark the main entrances along the tree-lined streets of Mills and Oregon. Two of the canopies are recreations of original designs based on Trost & Trost drawings, while a third is a contemporary design.
Secondary to this social center is the hotel’s guest check-in desk, located in a lobby at the northeast corner of the building along its east storefront. This quieter space is furnished with welcoming lounge areas in a palette of walnut wood, velvet and mohair fabrics, warm brass, and leather. Eclectic antiques and modern art pieces grace the walls, along with a mix of historic relics from the hotel’s past, including a handwritten letter discovered inside the building’s historic mail chute communicating that the sender had, in fact, arrived safely in El Paso.
The Plaza’s 131 guest suites have been rearranged to accommodate new amenities and modern expectations of hotel operations. Interior designer ForrestPerkins defined the hotel’s luxury rooms in neutral tones, with bold splashes of Art Deco seen in the brass hardware, velvet seating, and decorative mirrors and light fixtures. Local artists from both sides of the border were commissioned to create guestroom art reflecting El Paso’s thriving border culture.
The 17th-floor penthouse suite, famously home to Elizabeth Taylor during her brief marriage to Hilton’s son Nicky, has been converted into the hotel’s rooftop bar. From here, guests and locals enjoy plush seating and built-in planters while taking in the El Paso skyline and mountain views across two countries. That skyline includes many artifacts of El Paso’s continued rebirth, including the recently redesigned San Jacinto Plaza, the new Southwest University Ballpark, a number of historic buildings undergoing renovation, and new buildings like the Snøhetta-designed Children’s Museum, currently under construction. Along with the Plaza Hotel, these tell the most recent chapter of El Paso’s history.
Paulina Lagos, AIA, is an architect at Exigo Architecture in El Paso.